A Brief Look at Net Neutrality

If certain ISPs and unknowledgeable politicians have their way, the Internet’s days could be numbered.

In the late 1960s, ARPAnet, the predecessor to the modern Internet, was formed. Starting out using a protocol known as 1822 which proved to be inefficient, ARPAnet soon moved onto what was known as “Network Control Protocol”, which served ARPAnet well until 1983 when the TCP/IP protocol that we use today was implemented. During its rapid growth, the Internet has never been “owned” or controlled by anyone or any corporation. Today, the “freedom” of the Internet is in jeopardy. Known as the fight for network neutrality, this issue has been a fiercely debated topic as of late.

While some may be well versed on this issue, others might be wondering “What is Net Neutrality?” Before you can explain what network neutrality is, you first have to establish what is considered neutral. In my opinion, a connection that is free of limitations on how it can be used (within reason) would be neutral. To elaborate further, this would include: no limitations on what devices can be connected, what applications can access the connection, and what you can access while using the connection. So why should you be concerned at all with Net Neutrality? Picture this: If certain laws are allowed to pass and are left unchecked, in the future you could see something similar to the following when you go to shop for a new ISP.

  • Basic Package: 1.5Mbps/256Kbps – includes access to over 300 websites! $19.99
  • Basic+ Package: 1.5Mbps/256Kbps – includes 300 websites as well as MySpace and Facebook, $24.99.

In addition to paying extra for access to certain websites, if a game developer isn’t paying your ISP $X amount of dollars every month, you will also be charged an extra $4.99 a month just to play games made by that developer. What would happen if the developer did pay your ISP(s) money every month so that you don’t have to? You’re still going to pay because the price of games would no doubt increase as a result. I hope that that invokes the thought of “well if (insert your favorite developer here) is paying every ISP in the country money every month, how much extra are they spending? And how much are games going to go up?”

You get the idea. You could end up paying extra money just to access things that you access now for nothing extra. Imagine how the traffic on GotFrag and FPSLabs would be impacted if they were included in a “gaming websites” package you had to purchase for an extra $10 a month? On top of only being able to only access certain sites, what if it came to such extremes as you having to pay a fee if the machine you’re connecting with wasn’t manufactured by a certain company? As I see it, the web and access to it could become heavily policed by corporate entities with money to throw around. We have already seen some of this creeping in with certain ISPs such as Comcast and their responses to increased Bit Torrent traffic. In an effort to avoid purchasing more bandwidth, ISPs have started throttling certain protocols such as Bit Torrent traffic due of the amount of bandwidth being used by these programs. I must say this to these ISPs: We understand that you have already oversold your bandwidth and now take action so that you aren’t sued for violating your own terms of service regarding speed and availability, but with more and more places offering legitimate files via torrents, this is a bad practice.

In fairness, there is another side that has to be presented. Proponents of imposing limitations on the Internet state that they wish to do so in an effort to guarantee the quality of service on their lines. First, I will explain a little bit about QoS and how it works. QoS, or Quality of Service, is a term used to describe a method of being able to give priority to a certain type of information. This gives a home user the ability to make his VoIP traffic the most important if he/she so chooses. QoS is generally used when dealing with a protocol that is very sensitive to dropped packets and jitter. Sensitive protocols would be VoIP or Video teleconferencing while insensitive protocols could include streaming videos which are heavily buffered.
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Current bills that have been introduced include those which allow “Limited Discrimination without QoS tiering.” Basically put, this means that ISPs would be allowed to give information originating from one application priority over another type of traffic, as long as there is no price premium charged to the consumer. For instance, your ISP could give VoIP traffic the highest level of access to the line and then give all other types of traffic (AIM, mIRC, BT, Streaming Video) less priority. The second bill introduced would allow “Limited Discrimination with tiering”, Meaning that ISPs would be allowed to offer higher priced packages with QoS guarantees, as long as there is no exclusivity in service contracts. This would be achieved by rolling out QoS over their entire network, which again is going to cost them more money that they would likely pass on to consumers.

The other argument for people who support imposing limitations on content and use is that this will help cut down on ISPs overselling their bandwidth by “shaping the product for the consumer.” I am all for having a product or service that does exactly what I need it to do and nothing more, but doesn’t the web do that now? When you build a computer, do you build it to just do what you are doing right now? I would hope that when it comes to spending that type of money that you think forward and do some future-proofing. I believe the same applies to the Internet; sure it handles my stuff great now, but in the future I could need more.

Violations of Internet and network neutrality are fairly widespread. In 2005, Telus, a big Canadian telco, blocked a website supporting the company’s labor union. In April of 2007, AOL blocked all emails that mentioned a website which was opposed to the company’s pay-to-send scheme. In my eyes perhaps the biggest violation is the limitations of Bit Torrent and other P2P applications imposed by some ISPs. I am not comfortable with people in high ranking political positions voting or discussing these matters when they have no clue what is going on. One example of an uninformed individual that comes to mind is US Senator Ted Stevens and his likening of the Internet to a “Series of Tubes.” To quote Mr. Stevens directly: “Ten movies streaming across that, that Internet, and what happens to your own personal Internet? I just the other day got… an Internet was sent by my staff at 10 o’clock in the morning on Friday, I got it yesterday [Tuesday]. Why? Because it got tangled up with all these things going on the Internet commercially.” His poor understanding of the Internet leaves much to be desired. He is blaming the lateness of his email or “Internets” on bandwidth issues rather than a possible problem with the email server or routing.

To sum up Net Neutrality I believe that there are many things that need to happen before it even be attempted. If the Internet is going to have limitations imposed (which I believe will never happen), then major ISPs need to start upgrading the capacity of their networks and start implementing wide-spanning QoS ability WITHOUT passing this cost on to customers. Someone also needs to clue in those who have the power to make a difference but do not know what it all means.

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